I'm pleased to introduce our newest contributing editor: John Turner of the University of South Alabama. Here's his bio:
John Turner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame (2006) and a Masters of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (2002). His book manuscript, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, is forthcoming in Spring 2008 from the University of North Carolina Press. He is now swimming and possibly drowning in the turbulent waters of Mormon History, working on a projected biography of Brigham Young. Even during this troubled year, he believes that God ultimately has a wonderful plan for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
John has just published a longer piece on the subject of the post below, the Mountain Meadows Massacre: 9/11, 1857, published in Books and Culture. Turner reviews the terrible incident, as well as recent scholarly explorations of it, notably including Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Turner's conclusion:
Partly because the church initially suppressed evidence and only recently has made extent materials more accessible, debates over the culpability of Young and others will probably never be fully resolved. In our fallen world, hatred and prejudice and fear can all too quickly evolve into violence, violence that religion—Mormon and otherwise—all too often has failed to restrain.
Here's John's first post, highlighting in condensed form some of the points made in 9/11, 1857. I might point also to Art Remillard's post below on Mark Lilla's article in the New York Times Magazine, which addresses some of the same points about religious devotion and violence which Turner discusses below.
The First 9/11
It's a pretty safe bet that all Americans think of the Twin Towers when someone references September 11th. Fewer know about another mass murder that took place on that same date. 150 years ago this week, a group of Latter-day Saints (with the help of some Paiute Indians) slaughtered roughly 120 pioneers in a place called Mountain Meadows, in present-day southwestern Utah. Approaching them with a white flag, the Mormons had persuaded the pioneers to give up their weapons in return for protection from the Indians and safe passage to nearby Cedar City.
Those unfamiliar with the Mountain Meadows Massacre can get a brief overview of the events by watching a chapter of PBS's recent The Mormons. (The entire documentary is well worth the four-hour investment).
Mountain Meadows remains a bitterly contested topic within contemporary Mormonism. Some church members were upset that PBS devoted an entire segment to the massacre. Descendents of massacre victims and survivors remain upset that the church will not cede control of the massacre site. Numerous reporters have asked Mitt Romney for his response to the film. Moving beyond the denials of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints openly acknowledges Mormon complicity in the massacre. Several recent books – most notably Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets – and the recent box-office bust September Dawn argue that Brigham Young explicitly ordered the massacre, a contention the church vigorously disputes. In fact, the church has spent a princely sum of money and considerable human resources to produce a book portraying the massacre as a local affair. A summary of the forthcoming study recently appeared in the church's Ensign magazine.
For many outside observers of Mormonism, the massacre remains deeply troubling. Jon Krakauer, in his bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven, connected a brutal double murder in 1980s Utah, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping by a wanna-be polygamist, and historical episodes like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Krakauer's book was subtitled: "A Story of Violent Faith." He wasn't saying that mainstream Mormons today are violent, but he was saying that both today's polygamists and 19th-century Mormons were. I think Krakauer's larger point (and that of September Dawn), a point happily embraced by a goodly number of observers in the post-9/11, 2001 world, is that religious belief itself is inherently dangerous, as it opens people up to blindly commit horrific acts believing that they are following God's will. Is Mormonism, at least in its primitive form, its 19th-century form, inherently dangerous? Is religious devotion?